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Playing Defense on Guantánamo

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo

Three years after his election, President Barack Obama still doesn’t have a plan to close the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, military prison and he may lack the votes in Congress to do it even if he comes up with one.

The question of what to do with terrorism detainees and Guantánamo has become a perennial loser for the White House — one where moderate Democrats sometimes abandon the administration when it comes time to vote and Republicans sense weakness and political opportunity.

But the issue is coming to a head with the Defense Department authorization bill heading to the Senate floor with a detainee provision the White House opposes, renewed pressure from Republicans to resolve the issue before the United States pulls out of Iraq, and military tribunals resuming at Guantánamo itself.

“I’m not the best vote-counter in the world, but we’re not going to close Gitmo anytime soon,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told Attorney General Eric Holder at a hearing Tuesday.

Graham, who said he supports closing the prison if a viable alternative can be found, pressed Holder to provide a plan to Congress within 30 days on alternatives to Guantánamo for detainees from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Where would we put someone if we captured them tomorrow?” he asked.

Graham said options that have been considered, including putting detainees on ships or in Afghanistan, aren’t viable for the long term. He noted that the United States will soon withdraw from Iraq and said if the administration tries to bring detainees from Iraq to the United States, “Holy hell is going to break out.” The Obama administration had explored housing detainees from Iraq and the war on terror at a facility in suburban Illinois.

“If we don’t use Gitmo, what are we going to do?” he asked.

Graham cited one detainee in Iraq who is tied to Hezbollah and is suspected of killing Americans. He said handing that detainee to the Iraqis would be “just like letting him go.”

Holder said that he could not guarantee a timeline for coming up with a plan to close Guantánamo. “There are a number of options we are discussing,” Holder said, adding that a final decision would be made “by people higher up the ladder.”

But Holder said the administration’s goal remains the same. “The president has made clear, the administration has made clear, that we are not going to be using the Guantánamo facility, so we have to come up with options,” he said.

But Graham wasn’t satisfied: “Could you tell those people higher up that we are about to withdraw from Iraq and these people in Iraq are going to be let go? And we are running out of the ability to hold people in Afghanistan. That time is not on our side.”

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